A weekend in Pola, Istria – and Baka’s Hungarian Cake

We caught the bus from Trieste to Pola on a Friday afternoon in late March. I had spent the morning taking photos of the Majestic Princess, the newly constructed ship, taller than most of the elegant buildings lining Trieste’s waterfront.  It had docked the night before and was scheduled to depart later that day, to much fanfare, camera crews and fireworks prior to taking its maiden cruise around the Mediterranean. As the bus was departing at 2pm, we stopped for an early lunch at Champagneria, an enoteca near the waterfront. Although it was just before 12, we had some local Friulano wine with our lunch, as it is almost compulsory when eating at an enoteca, and a fine plate of Fusi alla Busara, (pasta with scampi) . Maybe it was the wine, or maybe it was that we were running a bit late, but I left a shopping bag containing  a black and silver jacket that I had bought specifically for the weekend under the dining table. I briefly considered taking a taxi back to the restaurant for the jacket but it would mean that the 21Euro on sale jacket would turn into an almost 50Euro jacket and I didn’t think it was worth it. So we boarded the Pullman (minus a jacket), managed to get all the seats across the back row of the bus and drove towards the Slovenian border, past the Majestic Princess, which was tooting the Love Boat tune and surrounded by people in uniform.

My father was born in Pola, so I visit it every chance I get. It is especially important to me now that he is gone, as I feel that part of him is still there, in the ruins of the Roman arena that he used to play on as a teenager, in the cobbled streets of the old town, where I know he would have walked with friends and girlfriends and on the beaches in Stoia and Verudela where he used to swim. I always go to see what was his home and imagine him walking through the front gate for the last time, when he and his family fled Pola after the war.

I had booked an apartment located at 1 Gladiator Road, an appropriate name for a street that ends at the arena; with windows looking out directly onto it.  Our friends Ksenia and Tomiza were picking us up in front of the arena and taking us out for 5pm “lunch”- their first “lunch” but our second “lunch”. We drove some 10 km to the town of Clarici (Klarici) to the Konoba Klarici, a typical country tavern that specialises in Istrian meats, chatting in various languages (Mark and Tomiza in English, and Ksenia and I in a mix of Venetian dialect and Italian). The meal started off as is often the case in Istria, with grappa, infused with imele (mistletoe), yellow in colour, herby and sweet. Next were platters of cured meats (two types of thickly sliced Istrian Prosciutto and donkey salame – which was incredible), pickles and cheeses, accompanied by jugs of wine and baskets of bread. After a good break and lots of conversations in both English and Italian, came the pasta and gnocchi – tagliatelle, fusi, potato gnocchi and ravioli, all with different sauces – and more wine. Then desserts: palacinke (crepes) for the men and pannacotta for the ladies, all drenched in a berry sauce, accompanied by still more imele-infused grappa. Our second “lunch” ended at about 9.30pm and Tomiza and Ksenia dropped us off at our gladiator apartment, arranging to meet for lunch on Saturday at 2pm, though I was sure I would not yet be hungry at that time.


Mark and I woke to church bells and the extraordinary view of the arena through the bedroom window and decided to head to the Saturday market in the town centre. Under the red umbrellas of the outdoor market place there was an abundance of asparagus, spring onion and leafy greens; in the undercover fish market, there was a huge variety of just-caught silvery Adriatic fish including sardines, bream and sole; and Croatian voices mingled with those of the Venetian dialect that is still spoken by many of the older residents of Pola. I ordered a “macchiato” at a cafe with tables that looked out to the market and was greeted by the large milky frothy drink in a glass. Not quite what I needed; the next coffee I ordered was an espresso with hot milk on the side and that worked much better. We walked back to the apartment via the Arch of Sergii, another remnant of Roman times, and I remembered one of the stories my uncle Mario told me in what was the last face to face conversation we had. It was during WWII in Nazi-occupied Pola; overnight, Mario and his friends, still teenagers, draped a large Italian flag over the arch, which is no mean feat as it is 8 meters tall. In the morning they waited, hiding, for the Germans to arrive and laughed whilst they watched them try to figure out who had done this and how they had managed to do it.

Ksenia and Tomiza took us to Fish Food More for lunch, a cafe where there is no menu – what you get is what was caught the previous night and the owner, a cook and former fisherman, had bought from his fellow fishermen that morning. This sounded like my kind of place and as we have come to expect from Ksenia, she discussed the menu in Croatian with the waiter and what arrived was a surprise, the best kind of surprise as I trust her choices completely. Ksenia’s father is also a fisherman, so she has a lot of fish knowledge: how to tell if the fish is farmed, how fresh it is and exactly the type of fish it is. We started off with a fish broth with rice and pieces of fish (no grappa for starters today), followed by a cuttlefish risotto served from a large pan on the table, and finished with a giant platter of grilled fish: sardines, red mullet and one of the many varieties of bream that you find in the northeast Adriatic – Ksenia knew exactly what type.

We drove to beachside Stoia and Veruda for a post-lunch walk along the Lungomare as we were due to visit Gianna, Ksenia’s mother for coffee and cake at 6pm. Gianna lives in the lower level her younger daughter’s house, a new 2-story place that is built old-style to match in with the surrounding houses. She asked Mark as soon as we sat down to her spread of homemade apple cake and coffee: “would you like water or grappa”? Mark requested water, much to Tomiza’s surprise and comments of “oh no, you must have the grappa”; so Gianna poured grappa for everyone, a sweet burnt sugar coloured acquavita infused with bitter almonds. And the coffee was very good, and so was the cake, Gianna is an excellent cook with a head full of recipes, based on those of her mamma Vera. After a brief rest at the gladiator apartment, we headed out to meet Ksenia and Tomiza at the Pula Rock Caffe, where we saw an energetic Croatian rock band who Tomiza knows and play Ramones-inspired songs. Smoking is still alive and well in rock clubs and cafes here so after a fun and loud hour that took me back to my rock-chick days, my ears were ringing and my hair and clothes had that rock-club smell I had almost but not quite forgotten. Mark and I got back to the apartment and jumped into the shower, and hung all our clothes on the line outside of the gladiator apartment. Things clearly change as you age!


Ksenia asked us over for 11am colazione on Sunday, our last day; I expected bread, jam and coffee, perhaps a little cheese and prosciutto. But I should have known that we would be greeted by grappa (home-infused with carob pods) and a huge spread of cured meats, cheeses, pickles and dips with bread. Ksenia explained that this is the breakfast they have on Easter Sunday and as after this we had a long bus journey back to Trieste – the Sunday afternoon bus stops in all towns on its way back – we needed a good meal, so why not share an Easter breakfast. I couldn’t argue with that.

She then brought out cake – cubes of a cake with multiples layer of a firm sponge and a chocolate spread. Ksenia explained that she makes this cake often, as her baka (grandmother on her father’s side) used to make it for family events and taught her how to make it. She called it “Hungarian cake” and she said it wasn’t difficult, she would ask her daughter Giannina to translate it into English and send it to me. I had three slices, and I blame the Malvasia we drank with lunch, or maybe the grappa we had before lunch, or maybe just that Ksenia had reminded me of the long bus trip back to Italy. And it was delicious. It is not so strange when you think about it – a Hungarian cake, made in Croatia, or more precisely, in Istria – a place that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for over a hundred years, by Ksenia, my part Italian, part Croatian friend. I looked it up online and realised it was a dobos torte, first made by a Mr Dobos in Budapest in the late 1880s. The cake typically has seven layers, though Ksenia’s cake had four. I will add baka‘s recipe for the Hungarian Cake to this post, when I receive it from her, hopefully very soon.

And I managed to retrieve my black and silver jacket the following day from the restaurant in Trieste. I couldn’t help thinking how perfect it would have been for the Pula Rock Caffe on the Saturday night; I might just have to find a live music venue at which to wear it in my last few days in Trieste.

Champagneria
Via Luigi Cadorna, 12, 34124 Trieste, Italy

Konoba Klarici
Klarici 83, Svetvincenat 52341, Croatia

Fish Food More
Rizzijeva ul. 47, 52100, Pula, Croatia

11 Comments

  • Marina Harris says:

    It’s always a delight to read your posts. We have similar background stories (my mother is Italian and was born in Pola) and we seem to have grown up with similar food experiences. I visited Pola a few years ago with my family and my sons couldn’t believe how the food we experienced was just like nonna’s! One son spent much of his gap year around there including attending a big music festival in Pola. Thanks for the memory trip and as always your beautiful photos and inspiring food writing.

    • thanks so much for your kind words Marina and for taking the time write. I am glad you also have experienced Istria – I think it helps understand ourselves a bit better by knowing where our parents came from. A music festival in Pola sounds like heaps of fun! I bet your son had a ball

  • Chiara says:

    che splendide foto Paola,in questi giorni sono stata impegnata in problemi di famiglia, mi dispiace non aver avuto un’altra occasione per vederci ma restiamo in contatto ! Un abbraccio

  • Tiziana says:

    Loved reading your post. Thank-you for sharing your experience.

    Tiziana a Triestina living in Melbourne Australia.

  • Anna fable says:

    Ciao Paola thankyou so much for sharing my husbands father was from pola and my mother In law from Albona we are all yet to experience all that istria and Croatia has to offer & hope one day my husband Gianni and myself will get there . Grazie Mille

    • thank you so much for taking the time to comment Anna, it means a lot for me to connect with other people with the same origins as me. I hope you and Gianni manage to go to Istria soon – I am sure you will find it beautiful and quite untouched

  • David says:

    It is so much fun following your adventures, Paola! Everything makes me want to lock my office, grab my passport, and head to the airport. I wish I could just do that – it would be fun to join you in the piazza for coffee or a grappa.

  • Oh how you brought back memories for me of my honeymoon in Croatia and Pola. I loved visiting there, eating the wonderful food and seeing the sights, many of which you posted. Beautiful post.

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